Mother’s Poem

My mother has always been a poet. Constantly scribbling, yet unable to spread her wings most of her life due to life’s obligations. I’d love to introduce you to one of her creations here. I only hope I was able to do justice in translating it.

비내리는 날의 일기 ㅡ 소귀골(牛耳洞)을 걸으며…  
– 수목원

옛목간통으로 가는 
골목길은 
멀고도 가깝다는 
표현이 맞겠습니다

돌아오는 소귀골
(牛耳洞)엔
장맛비가 억수로 
골목 어귀를 채우고,

비에 젖어 즐거운 듯
가지를 흔들어대던
굵은둥치 호두나무가 
나를 보고 반가워
가을을 기다린다고
얘기를 나누잡니다.

나의 로망은
기다리는 작은 기쁨, 
기다리고 있는 소망,
가을 기다림으로 해
여름더위를 이겨내는
작은 열매를 보는 거,

그렇게 소소해서도
마음이 충만해짐을
갖는 순간입니다..

Diary on a rainy day – Walking Soguigol street
– Soo Mok Won

So close yet so far
Is how I would describe the twisted backstreets
that leads to the old bath house

As I walk through Soguigol street,
torrential rain fills the mouth of its alley

The thick old walnut tree waves its arms
with the joy of soaking summer rain
It is delighted to see me
And urges me to chat about the coming of the fall

My inner romance is in
A tiny joy of waiting
A tiny hope of longing
And seeing the tiny seed of overcoming the summer heat
Through waiting for the fallAlthough perhaps it might be trifling,
The moment fills my heart with fullness.

Lunar New Year, Seollal (설날)

Lunar new year is often associated in my mind with the middle of winter vacation, the streets full of snow or frozen over. And after over a month of rest from the end of the school year, you start to realize that you really need to make some giant progress on your school work in anticipation of going back in a month or so. As a side note, at least when I was going to elementary school, Korean school year was based on the calendar year. This means you start your school year in early spring and end the school year towards the end of the year. You get a long winter break because it gets very cold in Korea. That doesn’t mean you don’t have homework. You actually have tons as you prepare for the new grade.

Some of the interesting things about the new year in Korea:

Rice Cake
by Sulkkun
Rice Cake Soup
by stuart_spivack (a flickr user)
  • We celebrate both new year’s day. One that’s the normal calendar year and the lunar year. We call the normal one, 신정 and the lunar new year, 구정. When I was young, the government or people, whichever, couldn’t really make up their mind on which one was more important. People sometimes got extra days off for the regular new year for some years and other times, got extra days off for the lunar new year. Definitely confusing although as a school child, you were on vacation so it really didn’t matter.
  • With the start of the near year (old and new), you age a year. So even if your birthday hasn’t passed, you are older. And well, since you are already a year old when you are born, sometimes the Korean age is 2 years older than what you expect. So we always have to be very specific when you are asking someone how old they are because they might be 2 years older by the U.S. standard.
  • This extra age gain is associated with a specific traditional new year’s dish. Yes, there’s always food of some kind in Korean tradition. The most prominent dish associated with the New Year is the rice cake soup, 떡국 (literally translates to rice take soup). This is not the puffed rice thing that most people associate with rice cake. It is sort of rice bread you shape into a long rod and chop it into thin slices. Then you use the beef bone broth, add a bunch of garnishes. It is one of my many favorite and nostalgic dishes.
  • Money giving custom. Like in other parts of Asia, we also do have money giving customs, but this is mostly for older parents and grandparents giving small amounts of money to younger children. Basically, a lot of parents dress up their kids in traditional Korean attire and take them to their parents. The children will wish the parents and grandparents to have a lot of luck that year (새해 복 많이 받으세요). In exchange, the parents and grandparents give children a little bit of cash. Obviously once you are a teenager, this no longer happens. And on top of that, the dressing in traditional costumes don’t usually happen either. Most people don’t wear traditional costumes other than during special events so purchasing them for kids is not really cost effective. There are rental services though.
  • Traditional Korean game,Yut Nori  (윳놀이). It’s a game with 4 pieces of wooden rod (carved) and a square piece of paper or fabric. Basically you throw the wood and move around the board based on what you get (like dice). I won’t bore you with specific rules. If you are really interested, you can search on the internet!

Parachute Undergarment

As I am a totally lazy information consumer, I do information consumption via email, basically in the form of email digests of news, science, history, medicine…whatever I can subscribe to. Well, mostly you can guess that the news is about nowadays. But occasionally, I do find some snippets of interesting factoids of history, science, etc. that I have never known and sometimes it connects with my Korean background.

And that’s what I found a few days ago…

It was a story about how World War II soldiers carried hidden silk maps so they could aid in escape as scraps of cloth could be easily hidden.

So here’s a related story about my grandmother. Unfortunately now that I’m starting to tell the story, the silk map for escaping is not at all related to what I’m about to tell you, but it still reminded me of the story my grandmother told me so you’ll just have to bear with me.

After escaping Seoul, my grandmother and her children (my mother and her sisters) landed in Busan, the last stop on the train (for how they got there, read my blog entry on Last Train out of Seoul). As you can imagine, all they had were whatever it was they carried with them, some clothes, paper money (which was useless by this time), and numerous gold and silver rings that traveled with my grandmother. My maternal grandmother’s household was rather rich so she had thought to bring all jewelry she had with her. And in those days, many people collected gold and silver rings as preserving wealth.

Jumeok-bap by CCkorea Seoul

My grandmother tells me that for a while, she literally exchanged a silver or gold ring, an item of great value for a single roll of Gim-bap (Rice with vegetable and maybe some meat wrapped with seaweed) or Jumeok-bap (Just seasoned rice shaped into a ball). She had been lucky since most people who had escaped from Seoul were not even able to get that much.

Gim-bap by ayustety (a flickr user)

As my grandmother was quite enterprising, she soon started the business of selling whatever she could so she could support her children. One of the items that she sold happens to be women’s undergarments made out of parachute cloth. I never thought about it, but I suppose numerous soldiers during the war time were air dropped into the war zone. I assume the parachutes were discarded and the soldier went toward wherever they needed to. My grandmother harvested many of these parachutes. They were made out of extremely durable Nylon fabric that apparently made several lovely undergarments she could sell for a great profit.

I sometimes wonder how she thought to do that…considering when she first got married, she couldn’t even properly make clothes for her husband and mother-in-law, which was custom in those days. But that is another snippet for another time.

Religion Part 2 – Buddhism

Bulguksa, one of the most beautiful temples of Korea

Before I start, I want to make sure to stress that I have never been a Buddhist nor do I have any deep scholarly knowledge of Buddhism. I share with you what little I know that I have been exposed to and my perceptions of Buddhism that got from exploring many temples, both within and outside Korea.

Hallways of Bulguksa

So Buddhism in Korea…As I said in the religion part 1  post, Buddhism is one of the primary religions in Korea. If one has spent any amount of time in Korea, it is hard not to be exposed to Buddhism. As someone who has always loved temples (and I’m equally partial to cathedrals and mosques), I have been inside my share of many Buddhist temples around the world (all over southeast Asia, Butan, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, etc.) and I have to say that Korean temples are quite different from many others I visited, at least in one aspect — there are no god statues  inside the temples. 

Temple protectors

It sounds strange that you would find gods inside Buddhist temples as Buddhism isn’t really a religion, is it? It is a way of life, not belief in some supernatural. Well, the vast majority (I should say almost all) of the temples I have entered outside Korea have local gods inside the temple alongside Buddha. The only god-ish thing you will find in Korean temples are four protection figures (of north, south, east, west) as you enter the temple. I heard that Korean Buddhism is not like others in that those who adopted felt there was some kind of inconsistency and sought to correct it. I have no idea what they are nor how Korean Buddhism is specifically different, but it is. 

Temples are usually on top of the mountains

Historically speaking, Buddhism came to Korea through the northern kingdom of Goguryeo (~4th century) during the three kingdoms era (I keep thinking four in my head since there were four actually). This makes sense since most influences seem to propagate from the mainland through the peninsula then to the islands. Yet, there is another strange little story of Buddhism appearing in Korea even before then. 

Gaya iron horse armour

There is that fourth kingdom of Gaya (Geumguan Gaya so called), that was a formidable kingdom, but mysteriously unknown that had existed southwest of Korean peninsula. Gaya had more advanced iron weapons, and were known to be great seafarers. It is said that one of their great kings married a princess from India and she had brought Buddhism to Korea even before it came through from the north. Many point to some of the very faintly remaining historical texts and some interesting motifs in temples of the south to support this hypothesis; yet, there is no solid proof of this assertion.

Gaya mini crown

Personally, I would like to believe this story. A beautiful princess who crossed the sea to marry a king of strange land…could it have ended in a love story that also started Buddhism in Korea?

Night – 밤 (Poem translated)

Strangely, I have been writing more poetry lately and although they have not much to do with Korea, as I did my best to attempt to translate my poem into Korean so I include some of them on my blog (and also Farsi translation). This one is not my best. I am not sure if this poem is even suited for Korean translation. Love and destructiveness are not topics I connect well in Korean as my knowledge of Korean is perhaps not really nuanced enough to do justice to this poem. Still, I do my best…

Night

The night calls me,
soft and seductive.
Come my love,
Come and be with me.
Forget about the day.
Forget your sorrow.
Let the darkness embrace you.
Come dream with me,
Let dreams be your reality.
Why hesitate?
All you have to do is surrender.

밤이 저를 부릅니다,
부드럽고 매혹적으로.
오세요 제사랑,
저와 함께있어요.
낮은 잊어 버리세요.
슬픔도 잊어 버리세요.
밤이 당신을 감싸 드릴수 있어요.
저와 함께 꿈을 꾸세요,
꿈이 현실로 될때까지.
왜 망설이나요?
모든것을 놓고 저에게 오시면 된답니다.

شب مرا به خود فرا می خواند
اغوا کننده و لطیف
بیا عشقم
بیا و با من باش
روز را فراموش کن
غمت را فراموش کن
بگذار تاریکی تو را در آغوش بگیرد
بیا و با من خواب ببین
بگذار رویاها واقعیت تو باشند
چرا مردد هستی؟
تنها کاری که بایدت کرد تن سپردن است

Religion Part 1 – Christianity in Korea

People are somehow very surprised that 2 of the 3 main religions in Korea is christianity, that is catholics and other christians. In Korea, people somehow separate catholics and christians. Don’t ask why as christinity (in all forms) came all at once to Korea over 100 years ago. I am not sure why christianity was so attractive to Koreans. Despite the initial persecution, the religion took root rapidly and spread wide.

I am technically a christian since my family, at least as far back as my grandparents’ generation on both sides, followed that faith. Well, but I say technically since I consider myself more spiritual nowadays. Since all of my grandparents have already passed away, they would not be upset at me for saying that. But if they were alive, they might have a slight problem with my “technical” christianity.

For some strange reason, you will find that the majority of Korean christians are extremely devout, almost fanatically so. This is one of the reasons why I seem to have very few Korean friends (as you can imagine, this is a bit out of norm). My lack of Korean friends is due to — as soon as I become even remotely close to any Korean people, they try to get me to go to their church. As I am not really a believer in an organized religion, this is a bit of a problem for me. Of course, the friendship fizzles after that since they honestly think I might go to hell or something because I refuse to go to their church. And it’s not just enough that I tell them I’m technically christian. It has to be their church or no church at all.

Thankfully, my parents were only slightly pushy about their religion. I suppose it helps that my mom studied theology (yes, she could have become a pastor if she so had desired). This is the reason why I grew up a little differently compared to others. My parents encouraged me to go to church on the weekends (occasionally forced), but also took me to catholic masses and Buddhist temples. This is not very typical. Most christians in Korea tend to be really anti-non-Christian religions.

So, now that I’ve introduced one of the main religions of Korea, I suppose my next post will have to be the other main religion in Korea…Buddhism, which, by the way, is quite different from ones you find in many other countries in Korea. Yes, not all Buddhism are alike!

Sadness of Having a Third Daughter

Despite all her brilliance, my grandmother initially had two daughters. Not having a son was of course a woman’s issue in those days. The science now shows it is really a man that is crucial to determination of sex, but in those days, people just assumed it was woman’s fault if she could not have a son. When my grandmother was about to have her third child, she was called to her husband’s household to have the child there. Everyone had wanted a son and thought the third child must be a son and therefore should be properly birthed at the family house. Although my grandparents lived in the capital, my grandmother traveled to my grandfather’s rural family holding.

Unfortunately, the third child also ended up being a daughter, my mother to be exact. Having birthed another daughter, my grandmother was not exactly treated well. Normally after birth, if it was the birth of a son I suppose, women are given seaweed soup (helps with blood loss, etc.) and taken care of. None of that happened for my grandmother. She was essentially ignored at my grandfather’s household out in the middle of nowhere. He was not there obviously since he was still studying in the capital. I can just imagine what my grandmother had felt. especially after growing up in a rich household with more freedom than other women and having studied medicine abroad.

Thankfully, my great grandmother came to the rescue. My great grandmother (everyone called her 진진 할머니) bought a very expensive dried seaweed, a package that was about half her body size, and other food items. Then she literally hired a motorcycle man out of nowhere to motorcycle her way into the mountain top household. Entering her daughter’s husband’s household, she took over the kitchen, made the seaweed soup and proceeded to feed her daughter. Normally this would be unthinkable. Usually the mother of the married daughter should act humble so that her daughter does not get mistreated. My great grandmother, although she is the most womanly and motherly person, defied such custom. Needless to say, no one dared oppose her as she stayed with her daughter for a while to take care of her after the childbirth.

Go great grandmother! Maybe I take after both of these great ladies…one can only hope.

Poem in triplets…

Don’t ask why, but I started learning Persian (Farsi) just recently. I guess I wanted to learn a language that is perhaps totally not practical for once? Until now, I learned languages because I wanted to be able to speak and communicate, especially since I always had a bit of wanderlust. But with Persian I find myself learning just because I find it beautiful. I am not a polyglot. I do speak Korean and English and reasonable Spanish, but otherwise, just smattering of words in a bunch of other languages.

But there was definitely a strange consequence of learning Persian which I thought was impractical. It has awakened my poetry writing. I had abandoned writing poems long ago, reasons I had briefly explained in my other post, but now I revisit my decision. Since I’ve been writing poems in English and translating them into Persian as part of my learning exercise, I thought why not also translate them into Korean? And perhaps I would add Spanish as well in the future posts.

Love

How do I love you
When you do not exist
What do I call you
When you have no name
How do I touch you
When you are a void
When my heart breaks
And I cease to exist
Would I be with you?

사모

당신을 어떻게 사모하나요?
존재하지 않으신 분을.
당신을 어떻게 부르나요?
이름이 없으신 분을.
당신을 어떻게 촉감 하나요?
공백만 보일 뿐인데.
마음이 너무 아파 더이상
존재하지 않을때
그때 당신과 함께 있을수 있을까요?

عشق

چگونه تو را دوست بدارم
هنگامی که وجود نداری
تو را چه بنامم
هنگامی که نامی نداری
چگونه تو را لمس کنم
هنگامی که وجود غایبی
وقتی دلم می شکند
و دیگر وجود ندارم
آیا هرگز با تو خواهم بود؟

추석, Chuseok

추석 (Chuseok) is celebrated on lunar calendar day of August 15th, a full moon day. It is one of the largest holidays in Korea. This is the time when so many travel to see their family and have a large meal together. I compare it to Thanksgiving in the U.S. There is usually a huge amount of food, made by the wives of the family who start cooking the day before the celebration. And no, there were no men who helped out, at least in those days. Since this is after the harvest time, there is an abundance of food. Rich dishes that are not normally eaten during the year are made. The family also pay tribute to the ancestors who had gone before.

The representative food that is made together (again women) is the rice cake (not the puffed rice you get in the supermarket in the U.S.), but made with the rice powder of new rice harvested. The rice cakes were filled with honey and sesame or bean filling and steamed with pine needles to infuse them with the fragrance. Usually half moon shapes are made and filled with fillings, but as usual, my young self used to make the rice cake into all shapes. Go figure…in a collectivist culture where I was supposed to do what I was told, I never quite fit in.

When I was a child, Chuseok was a holiday that I had a love and hate relationship with. I loved it because the school was closed and there was so much good food. I loved making rice cakes and interfering (or helping) in the kitchen. I hated the holiday because that usually meant my father’s brothers invaded our house with their families. Some might think large family gatherings are wonderful, but it was never that during my childhood. I am not sure I want to go into details on this post, perhaps in another snippet. 

Matchmaking

Even up to my generation, the marriages in Korea were somewhat arranged. It is not that one has no choice in the partner. It is just that the choices offered were not usually through what one would consider the normal channels in the U.S. (e.g. meeting at work, clubs, bars, etc.).  I am sure much has changed within the last few years, but even until fifteen or so years ago, there were many matchmakers in Korea, some formal, some informal. What do I mean by formal matchmakers? Well, these are women whose actual job is to make matches. They investigate people of marriageable age, details such as the education level, salary, family roots, astrology, etc. Then they act like a dating service, almost like an online dating site nowadays, except no one can lie on the personal profile.

Then there are more “informal” matchmakers. These are women who introduce couples, but they don’t make money. They just happen to know a lot of people and are very good at matching them, like my mother for example. She used to be a teacher, so practically all of her students she taught were of marriageable age up to about fifteen years ago.

In the historical past, the matchmakers did a similar job. They would travel through many cities or towns to find out about marriageable men and women (usually this was for noble families) and would match up families together. The difference between history and more recent time is that the couples now have choices. Before, the parents made the match and that was pretty much it. Most couples did not even get to see their spouse prior to the actual marriage ceremony.

According to my mother, matchmaking nowadays is passing background information to both parties and the contact information. Then if both parties feel like trying each other out, they would meet on a first date. If the couples hit off, they would come and visit my mother with a small gift or drop by to say hello together.

My mother used to jokingly tell me that if I were in Korea, she would have three truck loads of men to match me with. Of course, that is complete nonsense since I am too independent, too educated, and too westernized for most Korean men.